On Tuesday, General Motors named their new CEO, current senior vice president for global product development Mary Barra. Barra will be the first female CEO of a major automaker. The announcement of her appointment proceeded to flood news and media publications, with most identifying the moment as a milestone for women's rights and gender equality.
And among all that, I was left feeling rather disquieted, and it took me a while to identify why.
On the surface, it's a fantastic thing. It's always a fantastic thing when one more positive first for any target identity is achieved. But as an 18-year-old female going to college today and expecting to head into the job market myself in the near future, it's also disappointing.
It's been 93 years since women achieved suffrage, and Tuesday's announcement from GM seems ridiculously overdue.
I've grown up with the women's rights movement being painted as ancient history -- a problem that existed in the past, but was solved in the '20s with the passage of suffrage and then solved again in the '40s when women started working outside the home -- and that simply doesn't correlate with my world today, where no woman has headed up a company in as major an industry as the car industry before.
Nor does it correlate with a world where I, as a female intending to go into government, am entering a world where women make up only 18.3 percent of elected representatives (and that's a vast improvement) and have never held the most powerful office in the country. Or a world where almost no matter what field you go into, there's an unexplained gap between the paychecks of female and male employees.
The viewpoint on gender equality seems to be that with the passage of laws that eliminated the most obvious inequities -- i.e, not having the right to vote -- a societal attitude change would directly follow, all issues of sexism would immediately cease, and women would gain complete and perfect equality before the ink finished drying.
And the problem with that is it's simply not true. Equality can't be achieved only de jure -- it's not just about being technically equal in the eye of law. It's about issues of hatred, intolerance, violence, safety in spaces, and daily microaggresions as well, and those issues are not as easily remediable by laws.
You can't just pass a law ordering people to stop being sexist, and people will not stop being sexist just because legally women have more rights; there is a clear difference between legal change and societal change, and that difference seems to be consistently ignored when discussing the experiences of women, and of other minority identities, who are often told that they should stop complaining about sexism, or any of the other -isms, because it's already been solved.
Though it doesn't have the same historical backdrop, the push towards LGBTQ rights is a strong example of this phenomenon as well. The movement, which is, at least on a surface level strongly oriented towards marriage equality, is already hosting a burgeoning faction demanding that the movement go beyond that and start talking about societal issues of homophobia/transphobia, violence, and tolerance.
In this instance, marriage, like the right to vote for women, is the most obvious inequity present and its solution is based on legality not societal change, so it's the one that's being pursued the most.
These types of obvious inequities -- i.e, in this case right to marry -- are also easier for agent (majority) identities to empathise with. As a straight person, I can look at the fact that I can get married and my best friend can't as a clear, definable case of inequality. I have a legal right. He doesn't. It's fairly simple. It is much harder for me to understand the day-to-day impact of being LGBTQ, and the smaller, more nuanced micro-aggressions that accompany it, because I won't ever experience it.
From the opposite perspective, as a woman I can articulate that walking home by myself late at night through a dark campus is scary to me because of cultural phenomena such as rape culture, but it's very difficult to explain the exact type of instinctive fear I feel or the way it impacts my day-to-day life to someone who has never felt that way.
These are subjective experience, and subjective experiences are both harder to fix -- you can't just pass a law -- and less easy to empathize with or view as problems when, by their very nature, they aren't a problem for you.
Often they take a backseat to problems with legal solutions. And that's not to minimize the significance of suffrage or marriage equality or other groundbreaking laws and decisions -- they are incredibly important components of the respective movements they belong to -- but they are not the be all, end all to these movements, and too often they are seen as such.
The appointment of Mary Barra as the first female CEO in the car industry is and should be a celebration, but the year it's happening in -- 2013 -- should stand as a reminder that even when the first defining moments of social movements are old enough to be taught in history classrooms, it doesn't mean everything is fixed quite yet.
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